What new play has: a would-be murderer drowned by butterflies; a monk who died of the clap rising again, stirred by a post-mortem visit from a local whore; and Satan biting off the foot of a young man who slipped out of a pentagram?
It's Kendrew Lascelles' A Child's Guide to Heresy, adapted from his novel of the same name. But since it has nothing to do with heresy, with such a jocular title, you'd think this period melodrama is meant to be a howl.
Except Lascelles is on hand in an important acting role in this Point Park REP production. And, watching over his little baby, he'll have no folderol from director Robert Miller and his hardworking cast. Alas, they try to play it as if they mean it, but, verily, every trice or so some actor seems to be winking or milking the lines. Perforce this "adult fairy tale" resembles a video game rather than something about real people.
Stretched on a rack of two-and-half hours, the play's creaking bones underpin a tale of evil, corruption and cruelty amid clergy in 13th-century Yorkshire, with dialogue sometimes worded to suggest that period and place. A powerful bishop, Constantus, seeks Satan's aid to extinguish traces of his corrupted past, and gets a 9-year-old boy, Thomas O'Moorsriding, helplessly involved. The lad goes on to manhood but remains a pawn, not a knight. Another principal character is Mikael Ben Maliaechom, a Hebrew Kabbalist able to evoke angels and devils -- including Satan, who appears in several forms, once cleverly costumed as a goat.
It looks great, with fascinating visual effects from scenic designer Michael Thomas Essad and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski. Non-stop projections imaginatively light up an impressive-looking stage. Costume designer Joan Markert has had a field day with The Bishop's ever-changing wardrobe, which transubstantiates the wonders of Fellini's ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma. And Steve Shapiro has punctuated this farrago with great music and sounds.
The loquacious plot permutations may leave you puzzled or bored or both, though Lascelles says he intends "nothing profound" but merely "an enjoyable evening out." I agree about the absence of profundity. Too bad there is no dispensation to laugh.
A CHILD'S GUIDE TO HERESY continues through Sept. 25. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com